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The scene outside Gray's at around midnight on January 9, by Robert Sietsema

Historic Restaurant Preservation Plan: How It Might Work

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2013_historic_restaurants12.jpgDuring the recent Papayagate disaster, Greenwich Village's decades-old Gray's Papaya shut down due to a rent increase that went from $30,000 per month to a whopping, unconscionable $50,000 per month. Quite simply, no one could sell that many hot dogs. The outpouring of outrage was unprecedented, from those who regarded the stand-up eatery as an irreplaceable dining resource for cheap eats any time of the day or night, to those who saw it more sentimentally as a uniquely New York dining institution, a colorful gastro-monument that should have been preserved for future generations.

Gray's is being replaced by one of those expensive juice places, a franchise joint not likely to last very long at that location. (I give it nine months, tops.) But maybe the whole point was to get a faithful, long-lasting tenant out, since real estate interests paradoxically often prefer revolving-door tenancies: Each new lease in an up market represents greater profits.

Squeezing as much money out of a property despite any other consideration, known to real estate developers as the doctrine of "highest and best use," means that it doesn't matter if a tenant (if this case, a restaurant) is absolutely vital to a community and its history, only that the owner be able to squeeze the maximum profit possible out of a particular property. This was most recently seen with St. Vincent's, in the same neighborhood as Gray's, where an ancient and architecturally distinguished hospital essential to the medical health of the community was unceremoniously tossed to make way for luxury condos.

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At the time of Gray's demise, I tweeted there should be some sort of civic protection for beloved restaurants of cultural and historic significance — living museums of gastronomy, if you will. Many chefs, restaurateurs, and food writers — among them Mario Batali, Danny Meyer, and Pete Wells — tweeted their support for some sort of preservation program. Here is what such a program might look like.

Let's say we appoint a committee of three, consisting of a chef, a city councilperson, and a real estate representative, who are tasked with the responsibility of selecting a list of irreplaceable dining institutions that deserve to be officially protected. The committee can make choices themselves, and also take suggestions from the public. Let's start with 30 places as a pilot program.

When the lease expires at one of these establishments, or if the restaurant defaults on its lease, or suffers damage from a catastrophic weather event, or through unforeseen explosion, fire, or other damage, the committee leaps into action. If a lease is involved, it automatically mediates the negotiations. If necessary, the books of the restaurant will be examined, and a fair rent increase determined if a rent increase is found to be unaffordable. In the case of disasters, the committee will intervene with government agencies and private nonprofits to seek priority assistance.

If the restaurateurs who operate a place want to close it, successor lessees willing to continue in the tradition will be located, vetted, and the lease transferred. In other words, this committee will be charged with doing everything possible, including limiting rent increases to those determined fair, to keep historic places in business.

Landlords may oppose the program, reasoning that no one should be able to limit what they can do with their properties. But many city and state laws already do provide limits, including rent stabilization for residential properties, commercial zoning, Department of Buildings regulations, and the work of the Landmarks Preservation Commission over certain landmark zones and buildings.

Here are my nominations for restaurants, bars, and markets most worthy of being preserved, including several that may already be in danger. Please suggest your own — or dispute any of these — in the comments section below. Let's get the dialog started!



And let's not forget the last remaining branch of Gray's Papaya, on the Upper West Side…

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Note: Restaurants on this map are listed geographically.

1. Katz's Delicatessen

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205 E Houston St
New York, NY 10002
(800) 446-8364
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[Photo: Facebook]

2. Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano

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1524 Neptune Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11224
(718) 372-8606
[Photo: Bess Adler]

3. La Taza De Oro

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96 8th Ave
New York, NY 10011
(212) 243-9946
[Photo: Robert Sietsema]

4. Arthur Avenue Retail Market

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2344 Arthur Ave
Bronx, NY 10458
[Photo: Facebook]

5. Grand Central Oyster Bar

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89 E 42nd St
New York, NY 10017
(212) 490-6650
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[Photo: Robert Sietsema]

6. Faicco's Italian Specialities

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260 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014
(212) 243-1974
[Photo: Google Plus]

7. Keens Steakhouse

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72 W 36th St
New York, NY 10018
(212) 947-3636
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[Photo: Krieger]

8. Peter Luger Steak House

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178 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 387-7400
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[Photo: Krieger]

9. L&B Spumoni Gardens

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2725 86th St
Brooklyn, NY 11223
(718) 372-8400
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[Photo: Robert Sietsema]

10. Mitchell's Soul Food

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617 Vanderbilt Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11238
(718) 789-3212
[Photo: Yelp]

11. Kalustyan's

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123 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10016
(212) 685-3451
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[Photo: Foursquare]

12. Sylvia's

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328 Malcolm X Blvd
New York, NY 10027
(212) 996-2669
[Photo: Facebook]

13. McSorley's Old Ale House

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15 E 7th St
New York, NY 10003
(212) 473-9148
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[Photo: Foursquare]

14. Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden

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29-19 24th Ave
Astoria, NY 11102
(718) 274-4925
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[Foursquare]

15. Ferdinando's Focacceria

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151 Union St
Brooklyn, NY 11231
(718) 855-1545
[Photo: Facebook]

16. Delmonico's Bar & Grill

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56 Beaver St
New York, NY 10004
(212) 509-1144
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[Photo: Robert Sietsema]

17. Brennan & Carr

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3432 Nostrand Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11229
(718) 769-1254
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[Photo: Robert Sietsema]

18. Denino's Pizzeria Tavern

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524 Port Richmond Ave
Staten Island, NY 10302
(718) 442-9401
[Photo: Bess Adler]

19. Barney Greengrass

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541 Amsterdam Ave
New York, NY 10024
(212) 724-4707
[Photo: Robert Sietsema]

20. Wo Hop Restaurant

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17 Mott St
New York, NY 10013
(212) 267-2536
[Photo: Krieger]

21. John's of Bleecker Street

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278 Bleecker St
New York, NY 10014
(212) 243-1680
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[Photo: Robert Sietsema]

22. Bamonte's

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32 Withers St
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 384-8831
[Photo: Krieger]

23. Eddie's Sweet Shop

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10529 Metropolitan Ave
Forest Hills, NY 11375
(718) 520-8514
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[Photo: Robert Sietsema]

24. Nathan's Famous

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1310 Surf Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11224
(718) 946-2202
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[Photo: Foursquare]

25. Nom Wah Tea Parlor

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13 Doyers St
New York, NY 10013
(212) 962-6047
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[Photo: Facebook]

26. Junior's Restaurant

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386 Flatbush Avenue Ext
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 852-5257
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[Photo: Facebook]

27. Veniero’s Pasticceria & Caffe

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342 E 11th St
New York, NY 10003
(212) 674-7264
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[Photo: Eater NY]

28. Lexington Candy Shop

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1226 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10028
(212) 288-0057
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[Bess Adler]

29. Killmeyer's Old Bavarian Inn

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4254 Arthur Kill Rd
Staten Island, NY 10309
(718) 984-1202
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The dark antique woodwork around the bar, the stuffed stag heads, the German beer on tap, the waitresses in their dirndls, make this place seem like a wayside inn in Bayern, circa 1849, when the woodwork was carved.

30. Nordic Delicacies

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6909 3rd Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11209
(718) 748-1874
[Photo: Foursquare]

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1. Katz's Delicatessen

205 E Houston St, New York, NY 10002
[Photo: Facebook]
205 E Houston St
New York, NY 10002

2. Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano

1524 Neptune Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11224
[Photo: Bess Adler]
1524 Neptune Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11224

3. La Taza De Oro

96 8th Ave, New York, NY 10011
[Photo: Robert Sietsema]
96 8th Ave
New York, NY 10011

4. Arthur Avenue Retail Market

2344 Arthur Ave, Bronx, NY 10458
[Photo: Facebook]
2344 Arthur Ave
Bronx, NY 10458

5. Grand Central Oyster Bar

89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017
[Photo: Robert Sietsema]
89 E 42nd St
New York, NY 10017

6. Faicco's Italian Specialities

260 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10014
[Photo: Google Plus]
260 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014

7. Keens Steakhouse

72 W 36th St, New York, NY 10018
[Photo: Krieger]
72 W 36th St
New York, NY 10018

8. Peter Luger Steak House

178 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY 11211
[Photo: Krieger]
178 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY 11211

9. L&B Spumoni Gardens

2725 86th St, Brooklyn, NY 11223
[Photo: Robert Sietsema]
2725 86th St
Brooklyn, NY 11223

10. Mitchell's Soul Food

617 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11238
[Photo: Yelp]
617 Vanderbilt Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11238

11. Kalustyan's

123 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10016
[Photo: Foursquare]
123 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10016

12. Sylvia's

328 Malcolm X Blvd, New York, NY 10027
[Photo: Facebook]
328 Malcolm X Blvd
New York, NY 10027

13. McSorley's Old Ale House

15 E 7th St, New York, NY 10003
[Photo: Foursquare]
15 E 7th St
New York, NY 10003

14. Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden

29-19 24th Ave, Astoria, NY 11102